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Sunday, August 26, 2012
The truth can always be found up high in the catwalks...
A reader who goes by the popular moniker “Anonymous” left a comment on a recent post:
"I am in high school and I have always dreamed of moving to some incentive state or staying here in the Bay Area and try and make a career in set construction, locations or grip and electric. Is the future really that grim for the industry? Should I start looking at better paying options instead of following my dream?"
If it seems a bit odd for a high school student to have already set his/her sights on a career working below-the-line, who am I to question anybody’s dreams? In high school, I wanted to race cars professionally in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Grand Prix circuit -- not exactly a realistic dream for a kid who grew up milking goats, and even less practical than heading to Hollywood on a wing and a prayer.*
Besides, Anonymous is asking a very big question here: can the film and television industry survive and/or continue to thrive in this country -- and if so, is seeking a career working below-the-line still a viable path to a decent life?
The glib answer is "yes and no" -- although the Industry will certainly survive, the downward economic pressures on those who toil below-the-line will only get worse in the foreseeable future. That said, the only honest answer is "I don't know." With the Industry in the midst of an ongoing Digital Revolution and unforeseen developments in technology doubtless on the way, I can only guess what the landcape will look like once the digital dust settles... which means you shouldn't go to the bank with any of what follows, but consider these opinions to be just that -- my best guess.
First off, I know nothing about set construction other than that I really appreciate those crews who build sets strong enough for me to climb and walk on, which my job occasionally requires. As for locations, Anonymous would be smart to click on over to Polybloggimous and ask Nathan what it takes to work in that field these days. He's been at it for a long time, so pay attention to what he says.
In terms of putting creativity up on screen, the future looks very bright. Ever smaller, less-intrusive, and more light-sensitive cameras, the ability to edit on home computers, and evolving modes of digital distribution should make the actual process of making a film and getting it seen easier than ever. An economic model allowing these uber-indie filmmakers to earn real money for their cinematic efforts has yet to fully emerge, but it will in time. None of this means making a film will ever be easy -- you’ll still have to write a tight, shootable script, find the right actors, assemble a crew, nail down locations, then finance and shoot the damned thing before heading into post – but the technical hurdles that once held so many projects back are now largely gone. And athough the corporate-owned studios will continue to churn out big, stupid summer blockbusters every year (God only knows what they’ll do when they run out of comic books to translate into film...), the really interesting stuff will continue to come from lower down the Industry food chain, where people are still willing to take chances and try new approaches.
In that regard, young writer/directors like Benh Zeitlin might be a template for the future – doing more with less. Not yet having seen his “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” I don't know if he's this generations Orson Welles, but the kid deserves enormous credit for his unflagging ambition and ability to get that film made under the most challenging of circumstances. If it turns out he’s made a great, ground-breaking film, then maybe he really is this generation’s cinematic genius, the latest enfant terrible of American film.
A career writing, producing, and/or directing is not location-dependent – once you’ve got a name, you can work anywhere. For those who succeed in those above-the-line endeavors, it doesn’t matter that productions are migrating from Hollywood to elsewhere, which is why the creative types will continue to do just fine whatever happens. When I complained about so many productions heading north to a director friend a few years ago, he just shrugged his shoulders.
“I love to shoot in in Toronto,” he replied. "It's a great city."
Well sure – filming across the border was his opportunity to get away from the wife and kids while directing a movie. How nice for him... but what about the LA crews that didn't get that work?
For those who do the heavy lifting below-the-line, the future doesn’t look so good. The last IA contract (ratified a few weeks ago) marked a real setback for the rank-and-file in Hollywood, with more trouble coming down the road in future negotiations. Although the producers didn't succeed in completely gutting our health plan, and current retirees won’t feel the sharp blade at their necks just yet, we took big hits on every level. Next time it’ll be worse. That’s how the pendulum is swinging these days, with labor taking it on the chin amidst an ever-widening political divide that pits those atop the economic food chain against those who do the actual work.
It's bad and getting worse, and I don’t expect to see these flinty attitudes and hard-line stances moderating anytime soon.
Thirty years ago, a young person could enter this Industry with nothing more than a high school education, a strong back, and a good attitude -- that's all it took to make a decent middle-class living. With a little luck and lots of hard work, the more ambitious juicers and grips could climb the ladder and do very well after a decade or so. Although still possible, this is much more of a struggle these days -- and twenty years from now it will probably be harder still. The rise of cable TV (and cable-rate) has caused inflation-adjusted wages here in Hollywood to sink back to levels paid twenty years ago, and there's no relief in sight. With a few exceptions, feature production has fled Los Angeles for states offering fat subsidies, and now the bread-and-butter foundation of the Industry – television – is slipping away from its ancestral home, lured by those same tax-payer subsidized inducements.
The long-term picture for Hollywood appears bleak if serious action isn't taken to stem the outgoing flow of production. There will always be some form of production going on here, but it now seems possible that the thriving, bustling Hollywood I've known throughout most of my career will shrink until a thin shadow of what it once was. California’s paltry, Johnny-come-lately tax incentive program has helped a little, but is nowhere nearly large enough to stop the flood of runaway production. With the state's economy in such a mess, there's not much chance this program will be expanded enough to do some real good. The big incentive-states will scale back their subsidies someday, but not before the physical and human infrastructure – the stages, equipment, and trained personnel required to produce quality film and television – are in place, creating a comfortable working situation for producers as an alternative to Hollywood. When you consider how much work has migrated off shore over the years (features shot in Eastern Europe and New Zealand), and the potential of production eventually shifting to China in the eternal quest for lower labor costs, it's clear that LA will wind up with a much smaller piece of the Industry pie -- and that will mean a lot fewer jobs for below-the-line workers who live and work there.
As I see it, life is only going to get tougher for grips, juicers, set dressers, props, camera assistants/operators, sound departments and production personnel here in Hollywood. Any young person with the desire to enter and succeed in these fields should seriously consider going to where the work is happening and the business expanding – and from where I sit, LA is no longer that place.**
Then again, Anonymous says he doesn't plan to work in Hollywood, but would rather work in the San Francisco Bay Area or move to one of those incentive-offering states to get started. That's doable, and as Exhibit A, I offer the career of Steve Cardellini, inventor of the Cardellini Clamp and a highly skilled, very knowledgeable Key Grip who has worked his entire career in the Bay Area. The last time I talked to Steve, he was proud of having never worked a single day in LA over that time, during which he made a very good living for himself and his family.***
Through good times and bad, a small but vital film community has always managed to prosper in the Bay Area, and I see no reason why that should change. If he wants a career close to home, Anonymous can make it happen -- but if not, opportunity is alive and well in the incentive states, so he can always head on down to New Orleans, feast on gumbo, mudbugs, and oyster Poor Boys, then get to work building a career. It won’t be easy, but getting started in this business has never been easy, in Hollywood or anywhere else.
The ability to react and adapt to shifting real-world conditions is the key to survival in any field or endeavor, and that's as true in the film business as anywhere else. In uncertain times, flexibility will be required to survive, let alone thrive.
I’ll offer one last word of caution. Whenever this subject comes up on set – what to tell a young person who asks about getting into juicing or gripping – the response from gray-haired veterans is unanimous: don’t do it. Find some other career, because the way things are trending, life below-the-line is only going to get harder and less sustainable in the future. The good times are gone, with leaner times here and more on the way.
Remember, these are old-timers talking, and although I now qualify as part of that demographic, I do not labor under the illusion that my own opinions are the gospel. Nobody knows what the future will bring. Not too long ago, automobile manufacturing in Michigan was doomed -- the popular consensus had Detroit going belly-up, kaput, finished -- but after suffering through some very difficult times, GM, Chrysler, and Ford are still making cars in the Motor City. Corporate survival came at a steep human cost, however, with many thousands of former auto workers now out of a job, and a similar transformation may be under way in Hollywood. If that's how it shakes out, getting started and succeeding here among the rank-and-file will be harder than ever.
My advice to Anonymous (and any other young people pondering an Industry future) is to take your time and look deep inside to decide if this business really is your dream – and if the answer is yes, then go for it. When you really want something, there's always a way... but you'll have to want it bad.
Good luck. All of us -- veterans and newbies alike -- are gonna need it.
* Needless to say, none of these teen-aged fever dreams came true.
** Unless you're blessed with solid family connections in the biz -- in that case, you'll have a serious head start on all the other newbies and an existing network of contacts to keep you working.
*** Then again, Steve is one very smart guy. Not every grip or juicer is blessed with his intellectual firepower or mechanical acumen.